Sunday is the day Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow. Or doesn’t. By Sunday night, we’ll know if six more weeks of winter are in store. Or if an early spring will find its way onto the calendar. If only there was a foolproof method for determining what to expect from the Illinois football team. Alas, there is. Beat writer MATT DANIELS offers 10 reasons why the 2014 season will have fans chanting Tim Beckman’s name. And 10 reasons why they’ll still mutter his name under their breath.
1. Wes Lunt lives up to the hype. Shows off his rocket-laser arm. Sets school records for passing yards. Mel Kiper Jr. starts hyperventilating about what team could draft the Rochester product in 2015. Talk of a Heisman campaign picks up steam after he has a Dave Wilson-like performance at Ohio State the day after Halloween.
2. Josh Ferguson, say hello to Mikel Leshoure, Rashard Mendenhall and Pierre Thomas territory. The versatile Ferguson rushed for 779 yards last year. And established a program record for receiving yards (535). Ferguson tries to become the first running back since Leshoure in 2010 to surpass 1,000 yards. Let’s go ahead and guarantee that will happen.
3. The defense plays better. By quite a bit. And makes stands. Three-and-outs become routine. Having one of the country’s worst defenses last season was among the biggest issues facing Beckman’s second team. With Jonathan Brown gone, T.J. Neal becomes the new playmaker on defense.
4. Aaron Bailey thrives in his role, albeit a reduced one. Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit dials up some special packages designed to take advantage of the quarterback’s athleticism. Jump passes become the rage for youth football players in the area after Bailey tosses a few for touchdowns.
5. Mason Monheim makes like J Leman and tackles everyone in sight. And keeps growing his hair out, past his shoulders. Well past his shoulders. The rest of the linebacking crew follows suit (with their tackles, not their long hair) and starts to find itself in the mix when discussion revolves around the Big Ten’s best linebackers.
6. The fake punt call against Indiana that backfired last season works against Texas State. Thank goodness, or else Dennis Franchione’s Bobcats would have floated on air back to San Marcos with an upset win. Justin DuVernois does his best Nathan Scheelhaase impersonation with a scramble and accurate throw on the run to seal a win.
7. The soft nonconference schedule produces at least three wins just like in 2013. But then the Illini pull off a stunner. By beating Nebraska. In Lincoln. That’s right. Bo Pelini gets more irate at reporters in his postgame presser. And Beckman reaches four wins before October arrives for the first time at Illinois.
8. Homecoming isn’t ruined by the Gophers. Illinois inches closer to bowl eligibility by edging Jerry Kill’s team in Champaign for the first time since 2001. The Block I isn’t all the way full just yet, but the photos are a bit less embarrassing than what hit social media in 2013.
9. Illinois fans swarm to Evanston. In particular to World of Beer. Remember, the bar that was set to host an Illinois caravan event last spring? After some backlash from Wildcat supporters, the establishment backed off. Because Mike Thomas just got a raise, the Illinois AD buys the first round after Illinois wins its season finale to finish 7-5.
10. It’s not Pasadena. But it’s not Detroit. Illinois heads someplace a bit warmer than Champaign in late December with its first bowl trip since 2011. Beckman gets a Gatorade bath after beating Mississippi State at the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., and Cubit enjoys the country music as he basks in the offensive highlight reel he unleashes.
1. Wes Lunt gets the yips. Badly. On his first Big Ten snap against Nebraska. After Illinois starts 1-3 on the season. And it never improves. The Rochester product won’t come close to delivering on the hype. Mel Kiper Jr. will have to wait to hop on Lunt’s bandwagon. And Dave Wilson’s single-game records remain safe.
2. Josh Ferguson, say hello to Brock Bolen, Mack Jacobs and Quincy Washington territory. The versatility Ferguson displayed in 2013 never surfaces. Backup Donovonn Young doesn’t deliver when called upon. The offense becomes one-dimensional, and without a productive Lunt turns into a stagnant unit like in 2012.
3. The defense doesn’t play better. Not by a long shot. The development of young players doesn’t materialize, and the big issues facing Beckman’s third team at Illinois seem eerily similar to what plagued his second team. Opponents start licking their chops when breaking down film of glaring issues surrounding the Illinois defense.
4. Aaron Bailey fades in his limited role. The packages Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit designs for Bailey don’t seem to fool foes, especially in Big Ten play. Jump passes never enter the lexicon of Champaign-Urbana next fall, and speculation ramps up about the possibility of Bailey transferring.
5. Mason Monheim makes like Mason Monheim at times in 2013 and doesn’t tackle anything in sight. Cuts off all his hair. Shaves his beard. The rest of the linebacking crew follows suit and can’t tackle anything, either. When talk starts about the Big Ten’s best linebackers, Illinois is ranked near the bottom.
6. The fake punt call Illinois employs against Texas State doesn’t work. Beckman again spends his postgame news conference talking about situations that could have happened for Illinois but didn’t, and is miffed about the surprising loss to the Bobcats. Poor Brian Moline, the switchboard at WDWS is flooded with angry calls during its postgame radio show.
7. The soft nonconference schedule suddenly turns into a nightmare. A win against Youngstown State is the only victory. Jeff Brohm gets back at Beckman for not letting him stick around after the 2011 season, and Western Kentucky hands it to Illinois. Ditto for Washington and its new coach, Chris Petersen. And don’t mention the dreaded Bobcats of Texas State.
8. Homecoming is ruined by the Gophers. Again. Jerry Kill rubs it in the noses of Illinois fans who remain convinced a Mid-American Conference coach can’t turn around a Big Ten program. Oh, wait, Kill is doing such a thing in Minneapolis and has his players believing of future success. Illinois wonders again why the same can’t happen here.
9. Illinois fans stay away from Evanston. Despite ticket prices on StubHub going even lower than they did for the Illinois-Purdue game in 2013. The interest in the annual rivalry game sinks to new lows. More spectators show up at Memorial Stadium for the Class 5A through 8A high school state title games on this day than they do at Ryan Field.
10. It’s not Pasadena. Not even close. At this point, Illinois would most likely accept an invitation to Detroit for a bowl game. The buzzards are circling around the program, social media is wrought with frustration and Mike Thomas has to answer questions once more about the direction of the football program.